film composers

How Aspiring Film Composers Can Break into Scoring for Film and TV Internationally

Have you ever considered writing and producing music for films and TV as a career option? Did you ever wonder who writes the music for the movies and shows you watch, including the ads? It might seem a bit mysterious at first, but there are many musicians who make a career out of doing exactly that. Although it’s competitive, there are always opportunities to score music for films, TV, ads, and even video games. If you are interested in composing and producing music for visual media, this article is for you.

Aspiring TV and Film Composers should prepare by developing superior skills in music, technology, and business. Being a Film Composer requires strong music writing skills, knowledge of others’ work, understanding of the music and entertainment fields, networking abilities, and familiarity with the international scene. Solid strategies for recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities are a must, along with a realistic view of the challenges and a plan for meeting them.

It’s not only what you know, but it’s also who you know. While luck plays a role in success, it is also possible to manufacture some of your own luck, for example by creating an impressive portfolio and putting yourself in a position to meet decision makers in the industry. Learn how to leverage your network, stay persistent, be patient, and create your own luck wherever you can. It’s a smart idea to have a written career plan. When you work hard on your success, the hard work will almost always pay off.

Scoring for Visual Media, TV, and Films

In the film scoring field, the music is subservient to the images on the screen. That is to say, it should enhance the viewing experience for the audience. This is very different from writing music for listening or dancing. The Composer must serve the artistic vision of the Director of the film. This can lead to tensions because film Directors aren’t usually able to describe what they are looking for in musical terms. They’re likely to give some vague description to the Composer or refer to the soundtrack of another well-known film. It will be up to the Composer to interpret the requests from the Director and to deliver a product that supports her artistic vision.

This is not always easy, because of the potential for conflicting artistic visions. No two people see the world in exactly the same way. Although the primary purpose of the music is to support the action on the screen, the film Composer must still stay true to his own distinctive creative voice. Experienced Film Composers often share their frustration about striving to create music reflecting their unique style while adapting to the demands of finicky Directors and the need to support the action on screen.

Breaking In

Most work in the scoring for visual media field is project based. This means that a Composer must often work on many different projects simultaneously. Balancing workflow and time management means they must hire Orchestrators and assistants to handle project work beyond their capabilities. This creates opportunities for beginners in the field, who often get their start by assisting a more established film Composer. Internships are sometimes available. Working alongside an established film Composer is perhaps the best way to learn the trade.

In addition to films, musicians are employed scoring for TV series, documentaries, advertisements, industry shorts, and video games. Sound design for visual media and visual effects (VFX) is also an area of high demand. Nowadays, the vast majority of sound and music for film is created using digital software. Technology plays a strong role not only in the creation of music for visual media, but in the marketing, licensing, and distribution of all digital content. I’ll return to this later in the article.

It is important to build a strong portfolio to demonstrate your talent and skill to potential clients and employers. Make sure you have a professional resume and cover letter.

Understanding how the business side works is also crucial to success. Beyond finding the jobs, negotiating fees, signing contracts, networking, and other business basics, you will need some understanding about licensing, syndication, copyrights, royalties, accounting practices, publishing, and music and film’s legal framework.

How to Prepare

To begin with, and perhaps obviously, one must first have strong skills and knowledge in all areas related to music composition, orchestration, arranging, production, and scoring techniques. I’d also add that broad familiarity with contemporary music styles (genres) is helpful, since different scores may call for various stylistic approaches. At minimum, experience writing in musical styles from classical to hip hop, country, jazz and Latin styles will give some advantage. Studying techniques, listening to a wide variety of music in films, writing scores, and experimenting with different styles are a way to further broaden your music knowledge and abilities.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to attend school, as many Composers are self-taught, but school can help you acquire techniques and get needed experience more quickly. A college or university can also be a good place to network with future industry leaders. It’s important when learning to write that you can hear your music played by live ensembles; school can also provide that opportunity. Schools also might offer recording studios to have your work recorded professionally for use in your portfolio. If school isn’t an option, studying privately with a Composition Teacher might be a more accessible alternative. You can also find and read some books on the subject, or take an online course.

Aside from musical expertise, you should also become as technically adept as possible. Almost all music is recorded, mixed, and mastered using computers and specialized software. Many scores are produced electronically, and much sound design is computer generated. Find out what tools the pros use and get up to speed with the various programs and techniques. Whether using electronic or live instruments, music production is complicated. Every tool and instrument has its own requirements and there are almost always challenges related to creating and capturing the sound cleanly in a recording.

Takin’ Care of Business

Understanding how the business side works is also crucial to success. Beyond finding the jobs, negotiating fees, signing contracts, networking, and other business basics, you will need some understanding about licensing, syndication, copyrights, royalties, accounting practices, publishing, and music and film’s legal framework. It’s important to have relationships with an Attorney and Accountant built on trust. You will need their advice. You will also learn much directly from others with more experience if they are willing to share their knowledge with you. Finding someone in the business willing to mentor you is a great strategy. It’s not too early to start looking for all these people.

All of the above might seem like a lot to learn, and it is, but remember that you have plenty of time to learn it and that even the most knowledgeable experienced experts started out with knowing nothing. Everyone had to learn what they needed to know at some point. And there will always be some things you just have to learn by doing.

Creativity & Commerce Crosses Borders

Did you know that the market for music licensing in visual media is highly international? Films, TV shows, and video games are created, marketed, and sold all over the world. It is not at all unusual for a Hollywood movie to film on location in Africa, hire a company in Serbia to create the visual special effects, and a Composer in Norway to write the score, which is then recorded in Istanbul or New York. Then, the marketing and publicity goes out on various social media platforms around the world, and viewers can watch or play on their mobile phone or computer wherever they happen to be. A Composer’s day is often spent on Skype or WhatsApp video calls, talking to individuals all around the globe. Such is the nature of today’s web-connected world.

This highlights some challenges for today’s filmmakers and Composers. The first is the difference in time zones. If you are in central Europe at 3:00 in the afternoon, it might be 6:00 in the morning in Los Angeles. If your client wants to meet remotely from California at 4:00 p.m., that would be 2:00 a.m. in Istanbul, or 7:00 a.m. the next day in China. As a result, Composers often complain about their work-life balance being disrupted, in addition to their sleep patterns. Especially with more urgent matters, it can be difficult to avoid that call which comes in right in the middle of sleep or family time. To be certain, this is also an issue with most other kinds of global businesses these days.

Another challenge has to do with business communications in the face of language and cultural differences. For example, business works quite differently in Kazakhstan compared to London. Clients and vendors may not always speak each other’s language well enough to fully understand negotiations and agreements. Then you have the question of jurisdiction of the contract. Which country’s laws will apply in the case of a dispute? How and when will you collect your royalties and in which currency? You can see how problems could easily occur, leading to unintended consequences. It’s important to have an understanding of cross-cultural communications and how cross-border business is conducted in the stream of global commerce.

Form relationships with emerging Directors. If you can become their “go to” Composer early on, you can share in their growing success for a long time.

Technology is a Game Changer

In light of the above, the internet is most often cited by Film Composers when they are asked about technology-related changes to their industry. They also cite the constant evolution of software and hardware used for electronic production, sound recording, sound design, mixing, and even music notation. As a Composer, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in every area of tech, but you do need to understand what is possible, and have some facility with the tools of your trade. If you are lacking in some area, you can hire assistants or collaborate with others who have complementary skills. On the other hand, the better you get at using gear and programs, the easier it will be for you to fulfill your artistic vision and that of your Director.

Fortunately, you can always learn what you need to know. Resources include instruction manuals, tutorials on the web, taking courses in school, and gaining an internship with a professional studio. If you’re self-motivated you will figure out what you need to learn and get down to the business of learning it. It helps to get some formal training in the crucial areas, but there are people who have achieved much using a disciplined program of self-directed study.

As an aside, there are some newer platforms to streamline the process of matching video to music. Some, like, use computer algorithms to match the intensity of on-screen action to already recorded and published music tracks. The platform will then facilitate the licensing and take a small commission. This is a job more often still performed by humans known as Music Supervisors. Their job is to find already recorded music for syndication (licensing) to video or film, quickly, and within a specified budget.

Strategies for Success

At a recent panel on scoring for international film and TV featuring professional Composers, film industry professionals, and advocacy groups, I heard many great stories and tips for breaking into the industry. The panelists and members of the audience spoke eloquently about the challenges involved, sharing their own personal strategies for success in scoring for visual media. The speakers and questions from the audience were mostly about the business and the music. I’ve shared some of the challenges and topics above, and while there were too many to cover all of them, I’ll highlight a few useful tips:

  • Form relationships with emerging Directors. If you can become their “go to” Composer early on, you can share in their growing success for a long time.
  • Pay attention to creative standards. Make sure your work is of the highest quality, and invest in a portfolio to show potential clients.
  • Find a niche that you can own. Develop your skills in certain styles of writing that will make you stand out compared to what everyone else is doing.
  • Develop your own unique artistic voice, so people will recognize your writing when they hear it. Try not to succumb to copying whatever the current style trends are, though it’s fine to copy the masters to learn when you are starting out.
  • Network aggressively. Use social media platforms to connect with others in the industry. Join Composers’ groups online, go to conferences, and create your own opportunities by building a strong network to market yourself to decision makers.
  • Be nice, and find ways to add value to your network.
  • Find creative ways to bridge the gap between what your Director wants and your own musical integrity as a Composer and artist.
  • Be open-minded about criticism from Directors.
  • Gain a thorough understanding of project management.

Transition into Action

There comes a point in your preparation and planning where it’s time to take action to get beyond the planning stage. Here are five broad steps you can follow to plan your work and work your plan for any music career:

  1. Self-Assessment. Figure out your goals, short, mid, and long-term. Write them down. Make a list of what you like and dislike about your work. Describe your ideal career and lifestyle in five years and twenty years. What are your main strengths and weaknesses? Knowledge is power, and you need self-knowledge in order to present yourself effectively to others. Unless you write down your goals, they are just dreams.
  2. Effective patterns of presentation. This is about creating and refining your image and brand. Every professional needs to define themselves to their target market. I use the term “image identity materials” to describe all the components of presenting professionally: a strong resume, artist bio, website and social media pages, portfolio, and perhaps even a logo. It’s important to conduct all your business communications professionally, whether using a cover letter, emails, phone, video chat, or in person.
  3. General business knowledge. Since music is a business, you should acquire a thorough understanding of how business works. Contracts, licensing, publishing, royalties, liability, fees, negotiating, sales, financial management, taxes — there’s a lot to know and learn, so get busy identifying the resources you need to acquire the knowledge. The legal and business environments are always changing, so it takes some time and effort to stay on top of things. Read books on business.
  4. Project management. Since careers are made out of successive projects, starting a project is a great way to kick-start your career. Creating a quality portfolio is a great example of project-based work. As you conceive of projects and execute them, pay special attention to project management and use it as an opportunity to learn. It’s okay to do this when working on others’ projects, too.
  5. “Launch” (or re-launch) your career. Armed with the previous four steps, you should leverage all your preparation by getting out there and marketing yourself aggressively as you actively search for the opportunities.

As you transition into your full-time career you can repeat these steps again and again. Things evolve over time and so will you. This means you should review and revise your goals periodically, update and upgrade your professional materials you use to promote yourself and your work, brush up on your business and legal knowledge, and pursue new projects as older ones come to an end.

Keep in mind that a professional career has ups and downs. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to, there are frustrations and disappointments, but also great successes and achievements to look forward to. It’s hard work, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Stay positive. Luck sometimes consists of just being in the right place at the right time. As the famous film mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

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